Sad news out of Orlando, where more than 20 cats died in a late night fire that destroyed the shelter where they lived on Wednesday.
Officials from the Orange County Fire Department said one section of the building was already engulfed by the time they arrived, with flames visible through the roof. They’re not sure yet how the fire started, but flame patterns indicate it started near the front of the Pet Alliance shelter, where the cats were housed.
Firefighters were able to rescue all the dogs and 10 cats, but at least 20 — and as many as 30 — cats were still inside, with first responders unable to get to them, per the Associated Press. Of the 10 cats who were rescued, some were moved to another Pet Alliance shelter, while a few were under veterinary care for smoke inhalation and burns.
“If you run a shelter, this is literally your worst nightmare,” Stephen Bardy, the executive director of Pet Alliance, told WFLA, an NBC affiliate in Orlando. “To see your building in fire and know that there are animals in there that you’re charged to care for and you can’t go in. …I’m grateful that the firefighters put their lives at risk to help save as many as they could.”
We don’t want to leave you with bad news only today, so here’s a hopeful story out of Portland, where a cat cafe was able to adopt out every one of its cats in less than a day since its post-COVID re-opening on Sept. 4.
Purrington’s Cat Lounge has coffee, wine and beer on the menu for guests who drop by to hang out with the cafe’s feline residents and see adoptable cats. Although it’s a popular place in the community, it’s had a tumultuous few years: First it looked headed for closure after its owners planned to move out of town, but was rescued by a kitty-loving local couple.
The new owners renovated the space and had big plans for it, but those were halted along with everyone else’s ambitions with the arrival of the pandemic in 2020.
Finally, the renovated cat cafe reopened about two weeks ago, and Portland locals — perhaps daunted by the Delta variant and the prospect of more work-from-home, socially limited months — were eager to give the resident kitties new homes. Since Sept. 4, Purrington’s has placed more than 80 cats in forever homes.
Human beings have lived in the city known as Aleppo for more than 4,000 years, making it one of the oldest continually-inhabited settlements in human history.
But as the raging civil war in Syria expanded and bombs began to fall on the country’s largest city, there was an unprecedented mass exodus — reducing Aleppo’s population from 4.6 million in 2010 to less than 600,000 by 2014.
Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel was one of the stubborn few who stayed. His wife and children fled to safety in Turkey in 2015, but anchored by his commitment to people who couldn’t leave, Aljaleel stayed behind to continue driving his ambulance and feeding a growing population of abandoned cats.
At first friends and acquaintances turned to Aljaleel to take their cats as they prepared to flee the crumbling city, knowing he was fond of felines and would care for them as his own.
Others heard about the “cat man of Aleppo,” and soon Aljaleel’s home became a sanctuary for former pets from all over the city, which was becoming a ghost town.
With few remaining people to feed them — and food sources like restaurant dumpsters drying up — hungry stray cats started showing up too.
“Since everyone has left the country, including my own friends, these cats have become my friends here,” Aljaleel said in 2016, as a BBC camera crew filmed him among the hundreds of cats in his care.
One day a car pulled up and a little girl stepped out, cradling a cat.
Her parents “knew there was a cat sanctuary here,” Aljaleel told the BBC at the time. “The girl had brought the cat up since she was a kitten. She cried as she handed her over to me, and they left the country.”
For many people leaving the city in search of refuge in Europe or elsewhere in Syria, the decision to leave a beloved pet was agonizing.
But entrusting a cat to Aljaleel and his makeshift sanctuary — where the animal would be fed and well cared for — was much more palatable than making it to the border of an EU country only for a border guard or customs official to refuse the cat entry, forcing families to choose between pet and safety.
For people like the little girl, knowing their cats were in Aljaleel’s sanctuary meant maintaining a tie to home and hope that they could return.
“I’ve been taking photos of the cat and sending them to her in Turkey. She begs me, ‘Send me photos of her. I miss her. Please promise to return my cat to me when I get back.'”
That was in 2016. Almost five years later it looks like the young girl won’t be returning to Syria, and her cat is likely dead.
After Aljaleel’s makeshift cat sanctuary swelled to include more than 200 cats, things took a turn for the worse.
The Syrian government and rebel forces dug in, calling on allies for support and resources. ISIS and Iranian-backed insurgents entered the fray, seeing opportunity to advance their own interests amid the chaos.
So too did Russia and the United States. Both countries treated the conflict as a proxy war, with Russia backing Assad and his Syrian government forces, while the US and its allies threw their support behind an opposition that grew out of the Arab Spring in 2011.
The US and Russia provided the combatants with training and weapons systems, increasing the destructive firepower at the command of the belligerents. Both countries sought to advance their geopolitical ambitions in the region when they entered the conflict.
In internal memos justifying intervention in Syria, the US State Department predicted the civil war would flare out in months. Instead, the war has now lasted more than a decade, and in a move The Guardian called “a bloody end to [former President Barack] Obama’s reign,” in 2016 the US dropped 26,171 bombs on countries in the Middle East, with Syria absorbing the lion’s share.
Perhaps it was one of those bombs — or a bomb from Russia, or one of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad’s own warheads — that obliterated Aljaleel’s sanctuary. It’s unlikely anyone will ever know. But one thing all sides agree on is that the chlorine gas was courtesy of Assad, who has not hesitated to use chemical weapons against his own people in the bloody war.
Weeks after Aljaleel was featured in a BBC short about the impact of the war, Aljaleel “watched helplessly as his cat sanctuary was first bombed, then gassed during the intense final stages of the siege of Aleppo,” per the BBC.
Some 180 of the 200 or so cats who found refuge with Aljaleel were killed by the bomb and the chlorine gas, and the stubborn man who dug in his heels and cared for Aleppo’s cats while everyone else fled finally gave up on his city.
Aljaleel and his cats survived the power outages, the destruction of the water works, the food shortages and a military siege of the city, but now the Cat Man of Aleppo was just a cat man in an ambulance.
He packed the few surviving cats, his meager possessions and a few sick, injured or elderly people into an ambulance and joined a convoy of civilians escaping the crumbling city. It was a tense and perilous journey, as those who fled knew Assad had no reservations about targeting his own people if it served his goals.
After seeing his family and recovering in Turkey, and with the help of an Italian benefactor and a growing community of supporters on social media, Aljaleel took his cats and his friends to a rural area in Syria, far from targets of opportunity, where he purchased a plot of land, put down roots and began his sanctuary anew.
Ernesto’s Paradise is home to several hundred cats, plus four monkeys, horses, rabbits and dogs. There’s a playground for kids and — after a long search to find a veterinarian who hadn’t fled — Ernesto’s finally has a doctor in the house too.
The civil war in Syria has created perhaps the worst refugee crises in modern history, with millions fleeing to Europe and elsewhere in search of sanctuary.
The war had claimed 387,118 souls as of December 2020, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Another 205,300 were missing and presumed dead, according to SOHR. In addition, more than 88,000 people have been tortured to death in Assad’s prisons, while thousands more were taken by ISIS and other terrorist groups operating in the country.
But “children and animals are the big losers” in war, Aljaleel told the BBC, and that’s why he chose to return.
“I’ve always felt it’s my duty and my pleasure to help people and animals whenever they need help,” he said. “I believe that whoever does this will be the happiest person in the world, besides being lucky in his life.”
You can follow and support Aljaleel’s work via Twitter, Facebook and by visiting his sanctuary’s official site. Direct donations to the sanctuary can be sent here.
UPDATE: Charlene High was reunited with her cat, Donna, after staff at the Humane Society were able to work out a solution between her and the New York family that was going to adopt the 5-year-old Cornish Rex.
Little Donna went missing in February when contractors were installing a wheelchair ramp in High’s home and she got spooked as so many cats do, running out of the house.
She was found on March 14 and brought to the Humane Society of Highlands County, where staff held her for the mandatory five days before listing her for adoption.
In the meantime, High — who had been calling around to local shelters, posting Donna’s photo online and looking for her in the neighborhood — saw a social media post about a cat who had been found. The staff at the Humane Society named her Karena, but she was High’s Donna, and High said she was “ecstatic” her kitty was alive.
High and Donna couldn’t be immediately reunited, however. A family from New York had filed adoption papers for Donna and were planning on driving down to Tampa to pick up the cat.
Staff at the Humane Society worked to find a solution for everyone involved.
“We had to do some backchanneling and talking to the adopters and trying to find a solution with the adopters while also talking to Ms. Charlene,” said Sara Olivero, a staffer at the Humane Society of Highlands County. “We’ve had to do a lot of shuffling, a lot of phone calls, a lot of phone tagging.”
Ultimately, Donna’s would-be adopters agreed that she should be returned home, and will adopt a kitten instead, Olivero said. Donna was spayed, given a day to recover at the shelter, and was reunited with High on Tuesday.
“Ms. Charlene felt bad. The situation was bad to begin with,” Olivero said. Thankfully the solution was satisfactory to all and “every party is happy” with the outcome.
A Fox13 Tampa Bay (WTVT) story about the situation was aired and published to the web on Monday after the resolution, but presented the story as if the dispute was ongoing in addition to including several errors of fact.
We contributed to the flow of misinformation by linking to the WTVT story 11 hours after it was published, a practice called aggregation, and added our own commentary based on the misinformation. We got burned, and the result was presenting an inaccurate and outdated account of events to our readers.
We regret the error and promise to do better in the future. We’re glad the Humane Society found a satisfactory solution in a difficult situation, and we’re glad that Donna the cat has been returned to her original home.
Kaitlyn O’Hara was just doing what she always did on the night of Feb. 3, trying to help a cat who was injured and all alone after a snowstorm had pummeled the northeast with heavy snows.
O’Hara had stopped her car on the shoulder of a state route in Cherry Hill, NJ, and was trying to coax the cat to come out of hiding when she was hit by another car and killed. The driver, a 24-year-old man, hasn’t been charged in the collision and there’s no indication he was impaired.
O’Hara, who was known as a “cat whisperer” for her calming influence on cats — as well as her years of work fostering shelter cats and raising orphaned bottle babies — was just 27 years old. Her family and friends, who describe her as a woman with a bubbly, outgoing personality and a relentless dedication to animals, spent her life helping cats — and that’s how they want her to be remembered.
“She took on so many animals over the years that no one else would — bottle babies, old grumpy kitties like Eloise whom she adored (and the feeling was mutual), kittens with broken legs, the defeated and sickly — but her favorite and possibly best work was with the shy, timid and feral,” a staffer with New Jersey’s Randall’s Rescue wrote. “She adored the feral babies from our orchard project and was truly our kitty whisperer.”
On May 23, Randall’s Rescue of Mount Laurel, an animal rescue organization where O’Hara was a longtime volunteer, and HousePaws, a veterinary service in New Jersey and Bucks County where O’Hara had worked, are cohosting a free clinic for area rescues to bring in feral felines for spay/neuter services. They’ll also be administering feline AIDS and leukemia tests and looking for foster homes where some animals can be socialized for adoption. The organizers would like the event — which they have christened Kaitlyn’s Mitten Mission, a play on O’Hara’s nickname for cats and kittens — to become an annual occurrence.
Authorities dispatched a bomb squad after they received a call about a suspicious package left outside an Ohio church on Wednesday, but instead of a ticking counter the explosives experts heard another rhythmic sound — a female cat purring to keep her babies calm.
After confirming via x-ray that the bag contained cats and not a catastrophe, deputies from the Butler County Sheriff’s Office contacted Animal Friends Humane Society and put the mom and her kittens in the care of the shelter staff.
A note provided some information, but didn’t say why the writer abandoned the cat and kittens.
“The note inside the bag said the mom’s name was Sprinkles, and she began giving birth at 2:00 pm on Wednesday,” Animal Friends Humane Society staff wrote on Facebook. “Sprinkles and her newborns were immediately brought to Animal Friends for care late Thursday afternoon. They were all soaked in mom’s urine and needed gentle baths when they arrived. Sprinkles, purring throughout it all, received her vaccines and blood test and appears to be in good health. She’s doing a fantastic job nursing and caring for her babies.”
Sprinkles and her little ones were transferred to a foster home, where they’ll remain while the kittens grow.
“Last year, we provided care to over 1,300 at-risk kittens,” shelter staff wrote in their post. “This was only possible thanks to support from our community.
“Volunteer foster families take on the burden of caring for orphaned kittens in their home until they’re ready to be adopted. Many of them getting up every 2 hours in the middle of the night for feedings. All needed supplies and medical costs are offered for free to these foster families, and this is thanks to our generous donors who give monetary donations or donate supplies from our wish lists.”
If you’d like to help the busy shelter and cats like Sprinkles, you can donate directly to Animal Friends here or purchase supplies for the non-profit via its Chewy wish list. The shelter needs cat food, litter, wipes, collars and treats, among other essentials for the animals they care for.
Feline humor, news and stories about the ongoing adventures of Buddy the Cat.